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Record haul of cocaine seized in Gambia

By the CNN Wire Staff
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West Africa a 'halfway house' for drugs
  • Cocaine bust largest ever in West Africa, SOCA says
  • Latin American cocaine was bound for Europe
  • Latin drug cartels have been active across the Atlantic
  • Europe has expanding market for cocaine

London, England (CNN) -- Police in Gambia have seized a record haul of Europe-bound cocaine worth hundreds of millions of dollars, a statement from British authorities said Wednesday.

The 2,100 kilograms (4,630 pounds) of cocaine has a street value potentially worth many times higher since it is often diluted with cutting agents.

"It is highly likely a large proportion of these drugs would have found their way onto the streets of Europe and the U.K.," said Neil Giles, deputy director for the Serious Organized Crime Agency (SOCA), Britain's version of the FBI.

"Taking this cocaine, and the profits that it would have generated, out of the hands of criminals is a major blow to their operations," he said.

Gambian police arrested 12 suspects including a citizen of the Netherlands and Venezuelan employees of a Gambian-based fishing company and confiscated arms and cash from suspected warehouses. British agents were called in to help with forensic investigations which led authorities to a hidden room stashed with cocaine that originated in Latin America, SOCA said.

The bust -- the largest ever single seizure of cocaine in West Africa -- occurred last Friday in the capital of Banjul, according to SOCA.

In recent years, Colombian and Mexican drug cartels have crossed the Atlantic Ocean and expanded into West Africa, working in tandem with local criminal gangs to carve out a staging area for an assault on the lucrative European market.

Officials with the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency say that not one West African country has been left untainted by drugs. Africa's Gold Coast is sometimes referred to now as the "Coke Coast."

A driving force has been an expanding European market for cocaine, while use in the United States has declined from its peak in the 1980s, the U.N. Office of Drugs and Crime said in its 2009 annual report.

Criminals traffic about 250 tons of drugs to Europe each year, though not all of it makes it there, according to the United Nations. The European market totals about $11 billion. It's estimated that 27 percent of the cocaine that entered Europe in 2006 came from Africa.

"It has long been feared that cocaine traffickers might seek to exploit Gambia and other countries in the region as warehousing locations for drugs en route from South America to Europe," Giles said.

He called the seizure "highly significant" because it showed the commitment of Gambian authorities to crack down.

CNN's Stephanie Halasz contributed to this report.